Whose Flexibility? New Legislation Addresses Need for Stable, Predictable Schedules

By Liz Ben-Ishai

How Predictability Relates to Flexibility

“Workplace flexibility”—it’s a phrase that has been in circulation for at least the past couple of decades and is an increasingly familiar part of the popular lexicon. For professional, white-collar workers, work flexibility typically means shifting your hours in order to be able to pick your kids up from school, avoiding lengthy commutes by telecommuting, arranging for sabbaticals, and so on. But for many hourly, lower-wage workers, especially those in the service industry, flexibility means something entirely different.

It means your boss having the “flexibility” to send you home early because the restaurant is slow—after you’ve trekked across town and paid a babysitter. It means your manager having the “flexibility” to send out employee schedules on Sunday night—when you’re scheduled to work on Monday. It means your employer having the “flexibility” to assign you 40 hours of work one week and 8 hours the next.

All of this so-called flexibility means workers have almost no stability and predictability in their lives—and certainly no flexibility of their own. What is it like to have a job schedule that is unpredictable and unstable? For working parents, arranging child care is nearly impossible. For working students—the vast majority of college undergraduates—trying to schedule classes around work is futile. For workers who need to hold a second job, in part because they aren’t getting enough hours to pay their bills, coordinating a second job schedule is a nightmare. And for just about any worker, figuring out how to plan for budgeting, transportation, family obligations, and life is far harder than it should be.

Introducing the Schedules that Work Act

Today, Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) are introducing the Schedules that Work Act, a bill that offers a sliver of hope for workers who must deal with unfair job scheduling practices. It would give workers the right to request a flexible, predictable, or stable schedule, without fear of retaliation. For workers with caregiving obligations, who have serious illnesses, who are attending school, and those with a second job, employers would be required to accommodate these requests, unless business reasons prevent them from doing so. For workers in three industries—retail, restaurant and food preparation, and building cleaning—the bill requires employers to provide two weeks’ advance notice of schedules and compensates employees when they must work split shifts, are on-call, or are sent home before the end of their shift. (For more details, check out CLASP’s fact sheet on the bill.)

The scheduling issues this bill seeks to address may seem distant from more traditional work-flex issues often discussed among the middle class, but in reality they are the flip side of the same coin—they are about enabling workers to do their jobs well without sacrificing the rest of their lives. And these issues are widespread. The data certainly make the case—a newly released study from the University of Chicago shows that 41 percent of hourly worker receive less than a week’s notice of their job schedules—but it is workers’ own stories that make these issues real.

Inspired By Stories of Scheduling Challenges

Last week, in the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse described the scheduling challenges many workers face, offering several examples from particular individuals. The comment section of the story exploded with accounts of gut-wrenching experiences with unpredictable and unstable job schedules. One worker describes being scheduled to work on Christmas day, only to be sent home and told to wait by the phone, without pay, in case the hospital needed her. Another worker describes requesting a predictable schedule so she could find a second job (since she was never getting more than 20 hours per week at the first job). Her employer retaliated by cutting her hours to 12, and maintaining their irregularity. And a retail worker described her experience: “One week, I worked three hours. Another week, I worked thirty-seven. I once had a shift end at 2:00 AM (scheduled until 11:00 PM, but they lock you in until the store is “clean”) and had to return five hours later for another shift that started at 7:00 AM.”

If you spend time reading the comment sections on most news websites, you know that they aren’t always the most enlightened source of information. However, perhaps it speaks to the urgency of this issue – and to the growing reach of the problem—that the comments on Greenhouse’s article were so powerful they prompted him to write a second story, something he had never done before, according to a tweet sent out that day.

The Schedules that Work Act could make a significant difference in the lives of a growing number of workers for whom flexibility is something enjoyed by their employers, usually at their expense. To learn more and follow the progress of the legislation, visit CLASP’s page devoted to resources on scheduling policy issues.